Impunity and Immunity in Colombia


At 4.30 p.m. on the 14th of April, 2002, Tito Libio Hernandez was standing at the main entrance of the University of Nariño where he had worked for the last 28 years.  Two masked men sped past on a high velocity motorbike and shot him repeatedly.  He was rushed to the local hospital and was proclaimed dead at 5.02pm.  The killers escaped into the obscurity of what in Colombia they call impunity.  A better word may be immunity, an immunity which has meant that nobody has been prosecuted in 99% of the cases of the over 3500 thousand trade unionists that have been murdered in Colombia since 1986.

 

Tito worked at the University of Nariño, in the South West of Colombia for 28 years, and had been a trade union member and activist for the National University Workers Union of Colombia in Nariño since he first joined the University. He was also a community leader in his local neighborhood, and more recently a member of the Social and Political Front, a political party that was born out of the trade union and social movement several years ago, and which stood candidates in recent elections for the Senate and Congress.  The Front now has a presidential candidate Lucio Garcon, ex leader of the Central Unified Workers Union of Colombia.

 

Tito had received death threats on a number of occasions from a paramilitary organisation that operates in the city of Pasto, capital of the department of Nariño.  The question of why he had received death threats and why he was eventually assassinated cuts straight to the heart of the deteriorating political situation in Colombia and the lack of respect for fundamental human rights for all those brave individuals seeking to defend public services, protect natural resources from the greedy gaze of multinational corporations, and oppose growing US military intervention in the country.

 

The thread that unites these factors: public services, natural resources, US intervention and the elimination of social leaders is a neo-liberal economic model which while widely recognised as a failure, continues to expand its tentacles across the globe.  In each country this model has its friends and foes, and the results of these alliances and confrontations produces different results according to the history, culture, and balance of forces present.  Despite the differences in outcomes, the objectives are generally recognised to be the same: reduce public spending via the privatization of nationally owned sectors of the economy, cutbacks in social spending via the rationalization of public service provision and where profitable their privatization, and finally the opening up of the economy to external competition in all sectors.  The measures are generally justified in terms of reducing external debt, though these measures have rarely reduced that debt.

 

The effects where ‘successful’ have been the redistribution of wealth away from the vast majority of poor to a small national elite and international investors.  They have led to an increase in unemployment due to destruction of indigenous industry and agriculture via the introduction of cheap imports, a deterioration in the provision of public services to the poor – particularly health, education and welfare services, and the transfer of previously state-owned natural resources into the hands of the local elite and foreign multinationals.  It also serves, via the process of privatization, to remove productive sectors of the economy out of democratic control, and reduce the power of trade union organisations through layoffs and the selling off of different parts of an industry whose workers previously had one unified union to represent them.

 

The crucial determining factor in any country has been the ability of ordinary working people to organise themselves in their defence: in the defence of jobs, in the defence of public services, and in the defence of the countries natural resources.  In Colombia there lies a rich history and tradition of resistance, and a brutal history of repression against those involved.  The United States government has been implicated in that repression for many years, both overtly and covertly, particularly when the national elite appears to be losing control.

 

In Colombia, popular resistance to the economic reforms meant that their imposition was delayed until the late 1980s, and since then there have been strong organised movements which have postponed, weakened and modified the extent to which they have been approved and implemented.  Despite this, the effects have been devastating.  While in the 1980′s the Colombian economy grew on average 4%, in the 1990′s it grew by 2.8% and in 1999 it contracted by 5%.  Unemployment has risen to 20.4%, the highest level this century.  In 1998 more than 16,000 businesses closed with the loss of over 300,000 jobs.  Agriculture has almost completely collapsed as cheap food imports flooded the market in the last decade, leading to over one million hectares of land to be abandoned.  Levels of poverty have risen, and official government reports now suggest that 60% of the population now live below the poverty line.  This in a country blessed with an abundance of natural resources: coal, oil, emeralds, water and a bio-diversity unmatched in Latin America.  True to form the model has produced winners as well as losers.  While in 1990 the ratio between the richest 10% of the population and the poorest was 1:40, at the end of the decade that difference was 1:80. Apart from the national elite, the other big winner has been foreign multinationals who now control large amounts of the countries natural resources. 

 

Alongside the decline in social and economic human rights over the last decade has come the decline in political and civil rights.  Laws have been approved to criminalise legitimate social protest. Trade unionists and community leaders have been arrested and charged with rebellion, and marches have been violently attacked by riot police.  More covert, and more frightening still has been the rise in extra-judicial killings of trade union and community leaders carried out by paramilitary organisations.  Last year 160 trade union leaders were assassinated and so far this year there have been 52, Tito Hernandez being the latest.  ‘Para’ in Spanish means ‘for’, ‘for the military’, and this is an appropriate translation as countless human rights reports have clearly shown the collusion between the military and paramilitary in these violent acts. 

 

This is a social war waged by the rich against the poor, a dirty war of such immensity that the senses become numbed by the horror of it all.  A war directed against community, social and trade union leaders who seek to organise, resist and attempt to hold on to what little the people have left, and a war waged against all the rural communities that live in areas where natural resources are abundant.  The first get selectively assassinated, threatened, and kidnapped, and the second get massacred or forcibly displaced to clear the way for mega-projects.

 

The National and International Press continue to ignore these facts and  portray the conflict in Colombia as being either about drugs or about guerrillas.  But the presence of both drug production and the guerrilla movement are results of this social conflict and will only disappear when that social crisis is addressed.  This week the US Congress will vote on whether to change the regulations governing the use of the over $2 billion dollars of aid given to the Colombian government under ‘Plan Colombia’ supposedly to fight the drug war.  If approved it will allow the government to use those funds to fight the domestic guerrilla movement.  With the post September 11th political climate in the United States, Congress is likely to approve this, and those resources will not just be used against the guerrilla movement.  They will also find their way to the paramilitaries, and pay for more bullets that will be used against people like Tito Hernandez.

 

Today Tito will be buried, and will be surrounded by family, friends, students and comrades.  They will look over their shoulders as they march together to the cemetery, wondering who is filming or photographing them and whether they will be the next on the list.  But despite the risks, people will still be there, and they will carry on that struggle with resolve, dignity and courage.  A struggle that every day becomes more difficult, but also more just.  In the minds of  those people engaged in this search for a peace with social justice in Colombia is a simple question: How many more friends will we have to bury before the world wakes up to what is going on?

 

 

Mario Novelli works with the UK-Colombia Solidarity Campaign

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